Seattle Holds Landmark Mobile Election in Wake of Iowa Failure

(Bloomberg) -- A week after Iowa Democrats’ app debacle confounded the tabulation of caucus votes, another jurisdiction is betting on the reliability of mobile voting.

For the better part of the last two weeks, voters in the Seattle region have been casting ballots online in an election for a board of supervisors position on the King Conservation District, a Seattle-area agency. It’s the first election in the U.S. to enable any resident to vote by phone. While election administrators say the process has been bug-free, cybersecurity experts fear the premature implementation of the technology.

The annual election, which drew about 3,000 votes in 2019, is being administered by Seattle-based Democracy Live, which specializes in cloud-based voting systems. The ballot is stored on a portal hosted by Amazon Web Services where voters login, select their candidate, sign and submit anonymously. Voting concludes on Feb. 11 with results expected by the end of the week.

“When you mark the ballot, you’re not uploading anything,” said Bryan Finney, president of Democracy Live. “Over the next five to 10 years, we’re going to be having different options on how to vote, and this could be the first step in modernizing and quite honestly, better securing how we vote in America.”

In the aftermath of the Iowa caucus disaster where vote tabulation sputtered because of a glitchy, hastily introduced web application, cyber experts are urging election administrators not to make 2020 the year of testing new voting technology. That includes Washington’s own Secretary of State who fears even a minor hiccup could draw public scrutiny and dissuade further voting innovation.

“With all of the cybersecurity challenges that our country and state are facing, officials need to be focusing on making sure the technology is ready to go and is secure,” said Kim Wyman, who’s urging her state legislature to do away with email ballot-return systems for military and overseas voters. “I’m just a little reluctant to try something new in such a high-profile year.”

Unfortunately for Wyman, this is one election in Washington state where she has no say in how the vote is administered. Not even King County can decide how the King Conservation District executes its election. So after spending about $150,000 on error-ridden paper ballots that had to be ordered by interested voters in 2019, the district opted to more than double its expenditure to $350,000 by adopting Democracy Live underwritten by Tusk Philanthropies. Its proprietor, Bradley Tusk, is an adviser to the U.S. presidential campaign of Michael Bloomberg, the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP.

The district invests in environmental improvement projects, including soil improvement and water conservation programs. Its board members prioritize the agency’s projects and set its policy and budgetary goals.

While Iowa Democrats spent the better part of the last week counting and confirming their ballot totals after commissioning their app in November, election administrators in the district contend their system has undergone rigorous testing since hiring Democracy Live in December. And any comparison to the system used by Iowa Democrats is misguided, says Bea Covington, executive director of King Conservation District.

It’s “apples and oranges” said Covington whose election is open to about 1.2 million voters of which 0.3% cast ballots in 2019. She could not immediately detail the testing process for their platform, but pointed to the “thousands” of successful elections administered by Democracy Live, including in Denver and rural Texas

“This is not an app,” she said. “This is not something someone downloads on their phone. We are not tabulating anything through the internet. This is a secure portal.”

Cybersecurity experts contend Covington is missing the point. Tethering an election to internet services, including a website where voters submit their name and date of birth to determine eligibility, opens the system to outside infiltration and possible manipulation, leading to discredited results.

“Online voting is highly vulnerable to undetectable manipulation and is too untrustworthy for public, government elections,” said Susan Greenhalgh, vice president at the National Election Defense Coalition, a group working to secure voting systems “Vendors of online systems like to assert they are secure, but they are rarely subject to public testing or scrutiny to back up those claims.”

Covington is ready to push back, arguing that the district isn’t the first jurisdiction to use the Democracy Live platform, applied elsewhere for overseas and military balloting. Mobile voting, which is new, is necessary to engage young voters whose participation in elections continues to diminish, she said.

Still even Democracy Live isn’t ready to take this system to a more critical race.

“You typically want to go off-Broadway before you go on Broadway,” said Finney, Democracy Live’s president. At this point, “we would never dream of doing it on a statewide election.“

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